Guest post: Learning to be an American overseas

By Ryley Farrell

Many creatures have a built-in self-defense mechanism that helps them blend in with their surroundings. Chameleons change colors, butterflies have wings that look like birds, while some insects play the part of a leaf or stick to stay safe from predators. Being an expat in Oslo I have learned that I, too, have played different parts and added new colors to my personality to blend in with my chilly Norwegian surroundings, and it’s not the first time.

When I travelled abroad shortly after 9/11 I was told to camouflage my “American-ness” for my own safety. This involved not wearing sneakers or blue jeans and sewing a Canadian flag to my backpack. I didn’t heed that advice and never felt threatened during my travels. Even when my purely American, slightly Southern accent reared its ugly head I was never preyed upon (although someone did steal my water bottle).

Since I moved to Norway I have drawn on an animal survival instinct and adapted some chameleon-like qualities.

When I moved to Abu Dhabi a few years ago I didn’t think that I was “chameleoning” at the time, but in retrospect I did. Being near some of the world’s best shopping made it easy to change my colors with luxurious labels – as long as they covered my elbows and knees to adhere to local expectations. I made an effort (more than most of my friends and colleagues) to respect the culture and not dress offensively, but I didn’t feel the need to change my behavior in any real way.

Maybe it was easy because I wasn’t planning on being in Abu Dhabi forever, and the fact that the locals weren’t interested in my assimilation anyway. I learned about the basics of culture in the United Arab Emirates, but I didn’t feel the need to change anything about my personality. Fitting in at that level was easy.

Norway is different. Perhaps it’s because I’m married to a Norwegian and desperately want to connect with my husband on a cultural level. It could also be that things look and feel so familiar that I thought it would be easy to blend in: the store names are similar and, unlike in Abu Dhabi, faces are uncovered (at least on the warm days). There’s even a 7-Eleven on my corner! If I squint a little and tune out the Norwegian street signs, it looks a lot like the US.

It’s still hard to fit in. Perhaps I haven’t quite found my niche in Oslo. Since I moved to Norway more than a year ago, I find that I have drawn on an animal survival instinct and adapted some chameleon-like qualities.

I really, really want Norway to like me.

I first noticed it on the street. I’m a “smiley” person. Like most Americans I smile or nod at someone when I pass them. At the very least I’ll make eye-contact. When I first moved to my neighborhood in Oslo I would try to be personable with people I passed on the street, or neighbors that I bumped into in a nearby shop across, but I didn’t get much in return. I was starting to think I had done something inadvertently offensive when my Norwegian language teacher told me that “a friendly Norwegian is one that smiles at your feet.” My neighbors must have thought I was crazy by being so friendly.

Norway America flagLike a chameleon camouflaging with the approach of a predator, I immediately stopped my smiles and nods of recognition when I stepped outside of my house. I began to stare at the ground or look beyond the people I lived next door to. It felt odd – and rude – but I stayed the course and stopped being so friendly.

That only made Norway seem a bit colder.

The next time I did it was in a café. I am typically pretty loud, probably what you might call stereotypically American loud. I don’t mean to laugh and talk loudly, it just happens. However I realized that I was intuitively toning it down and oddly enough, my friends seemed were too. We were all playing the part of the civilized, tip-toeing Norwegian café dweller, to the point that it was hard to hear one another.

To be fair, some of my friends are European and are not playing a part. But I was acutely aware of the glances from locals at nearby tables and by toning down my “American-ness,” I blended into the safety of my group.

There are countless other ways that I tried fitting in: less make up and jewelry, smaller hair and flat heeled shoes… Yet it never made me feel any more comfortable in my new home. In fact it was having the opposite effect, I was becoming a wallflower. I was so uncomfortable with this new skin that I’m sure I was making others around me uncomfortable.

When I did venture back to my own shade of American – confident and unapologetically friendly – and tried wearing high heels to a party, I looked like a child playing dress-up as I hobbled down Oslo’s cobblestone streets, my feet aching to go back to sensible Norwegian shoes.

I can’t pinpoint why I started my chameleon ways but it didn’t take long for me to realize that if I opened my mouth it was abundantly clear that I wasn’t from around here. Besides, nothing I was doing was making me any more Norwegian.

So I’ve started laughing loudly in cafés and smiling like a lunatic at people on the street again. What I have found is to blend, you have to be yourself. It turns out I just hadn’t stayed “smiley” long enough to break the ice – last week a passerby smiled back at me.

I think Norway is beginning to thaw.

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “Guest post: Learning to be an American overseas

  1. Boy, it sounds hard for you. Yes, in general, the further north you get in Europe, the more reserved people are. Although I found the reverse in Great Britain. I recognize the feeling of having to walk on egg shells all the time. I think you just gave me an idea for another post. Good luck up there!

    • That’s funny, I found Britishers pretty reserved, but then again I was in London which doesn’t really represent the whole of England very well, it’s such a big city. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I’ll tell Ryley.

  2. I was so glad to read the last paragraph! As I read the post, I wondered how on earth you were going to be comfortable if you couldn’t be your smiling, loud self (sounds like me!) and you didn’t feel like yourself as a chameleon. Good for you for ultimately being you! You’ll thaw them out!

  3. Love this post! I have been living in Germany for the past year and can relate to a lot of this. It’s so refreshing to read about similar experiences. Thanks!

  4. That was a fun post. Smiling all the time is a very American thing to do – I guess it can you uncomfortable if that’s not something that you’ve been brought up with, even though it is still perceived as a friendly and unthreatening gesture. I think where ever you are you’ve got to be “you” – and you will probably change a bit and become more like the locals over time, but that core is still there and any real friends you make will not be swayed by some of the cultural differences.

  5. Great post on trying to fit in (or “blend”) when it is nearly impossible to do so! I agree, it’s even worse when a lot of the surroundings feel familiar – I had a similar experience in Argentina – but I’d say give it time. And don’t lose yourself, as you said, Norway will like you better for who you are than who you might change yourself to be.

  6. I can so relate to this. Even in US going from south to east coast you feel the differences. After 2 years of living in KY and moving to DC I start missing the smiley faces of southerns and their easy life-pace. The problem with living in a different culture is that we always will feel like misfits, outliners no matter what we do, if we stick to our culture or adhere to the new rules. But in between the two I would also choose to be myself 🙂

Tell me what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s